When COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns first began, many people stopped commuting to the office and traveling.

“Because nobody was driving or flying, we actually saw a pretty significant improvement in air quality and emissions as well,” says Renee Obringer of the University of Maryland.

But she says the shift to working and hanging out at home comes with environmental impacts of its own. Since lockdowns began, internet usage has soared. More video calls and streaming media have increased the demand on internet data centers.

These data centers require a lot of power, so they have a big impact on the climate. Even before the pandemic, they accounted for about 1% of global electricity use.

Obringer says people can reduce the carbon caused by their internet use – for example, by turning off video in an online meeting.

But she says the biggest change needs to come from the companies that operate data centers.

“Shifting towards more renewable or less carbon intensive electricity can really help reduce the environmental footprint,” Obringer says.

Some data centers are already moving in this direction. But she says it may take regulation and consumer pressure to ensure that as internet traffic grows, its climate impact shrinks.

Reporting credit: Sarah Kennedy/ChavoBart Digital Media